Oregon Health Authority unveils long-awaited water testing program in Morrow, Umatilla counties

The announcement coincides with a quiet visit by Environmental Protection Agency officials to the area where people have had contaminated well water

By: - March 23, 2023 12:16 pm
A resident in the West Glen neighborhood in Boardman receives information about nitrate contamination from the local public health department in the spring of 2022. After months of discussing plans, the state health department is now rolling out a water testing program.

A resident in the West Glen neighborhood in Boardman receives information about nitrate contamination from the local public health department in the spring of 2022. After months of discussing plans, the state health department is now rolling out a water testing program. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Health Authority has launched a program to provide free water testing for Morrow and Umatilla county residents who rely on water from potentially contaminated wells.

The program, unveiled Wednesday, marks the first testing program by the state in the two counties and follows criticism of the health authority for being slow to respond to the drinking water contamination. An aquifer that has been contaminated with nitrates from animal manure, food processing and farm fertilizers for more than three decades is the main water source in the area for those who rely on wells.

The announcement of the program came two days after a quiet visit to the area by top level regional officials from the Environmental Protection Agency. It refused to allow media to attend, and did not invite the state. Bill Dunbar, a spokesperson for the agency, said federal officials are committed to seeing the state’s emergency response to the drinking water contamination move faster than it has in the past. 

A state health authority spokesman said the timing of the testing program’s release and the EPA visit was coincidental.

They were not willing to consider methods other than vouchers, which the community has repeatedly said are too cumbersome in an emergency situation.

– Nella Parks, Oregon Rural Action

Though locals working on getting residents safe water welcomed the agency’s initiative after months of discussions, they complained about the bureaucracy involved. The health authority is requiring residents to apply for a voucher and collect and deliver samples for testing, rather than the agency spearheading a door-to-door testing campaign and paying directly for tests. 

“They were not willing to consider methods other than vouchers, which the community has repeatedly said are too cumbersome in an emergency situation,” Nella Parks, a senior organizer with the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action, said in a text message. 

The health authority estimates that there are about 4,500 wells in the two counties that provide drinking water to households. Some wells serve multiple households, and many residents who rely on them are low-income and Latino. 

Get a voucher

Residents can apply online, with applications in English and Spanish. The application includes more than 25 questions about the well’s location and use. Eligible wells must be in one of the two counties above the Lower Umatilla Basin and cannot be connected to a public water system. Also, households must be using the well water for drinking, bathing, cooking and washing dishes. 

Local officials suspect that many of the wells have dangerously high levels of nitrates. Nitrates are unsafe to drink at levels above 10 parts per million, a threshold set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When consumed over long periods, high levels of nitrates can lead to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute, as well as miscarriages. 

Residents have until May 15 to apply online for a voucher by answering a long list of questions (see infobox). When applications are approved, officials provide a voucher, information about collecting testing supplies, and residents have to collect the water and drop off the sample to either the local health department or a testing center in Pendleton. The voucher covers all costs.

The state is testing for nitrates, arsenic, bacteria, lead, iron and manganese.

The health authority also plans to provide vouchers for in-home reverse-osmosis treatment systems for residents with the highest nitrate levels, according to a release from the agency. 

Testing so far

Door hangers left on the homes of Morrow County residents by Oregon Rural Action. The group, along with the local public health department, has been leading their own testing campaign over the last year in the state's absence.
Door hangers left on the homes of Morrow County residents by Oregon Rural Action. The group, along with the local public health department, has been leading their own testing campaign over the last year in the state’s absence. (Nella Parks/Oregon Rural Action)

As of Wednesday, officials had distributed 38 testing vouchers in the area, the news release said. Most were submitted following a March 11 event organized by the Morrow County Public Health Department and Oregon Rural Action to educate locals about the testing program. Volunteers not only helped residents fill out voucher applications, but helped them to collect their water samples and brought samples to Pendleton to be tested. 

While waiting nearly a year for the state to help with testing, Oregon Rural Action, with the Morrow County Public Health Department’s Communicable Disease Specialist Ana Piñeyro and former Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty, conducted their own water testing program in Morrow County, with volunteers doing the work. Since last spring, more than 500 households in Morrow County have had their water tested this way, and about 40% have come back with nitrate levels above the EPA’s safe drinking limit. 

The health authority has more than $880,000 from the Legislature for the program – but that is only enough to test about 17% of the wells in the two counties, and to provide reverse osmosis filters for less than 2% of the county well users. Gov. Tina Kotek has proposed extending funding for testing and filters through 2025. 

EPA visit

On Monday, Casey Sixkiller, the EPA regional administrator, and his staff, including the EPA’s regional director of enforcement and compliance, Edward Kowalski, coordinated a visit to the area with Oregon Rural Action and with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. They visited Boardman residents at home and held a community meeting. 

Morrow County residents meet with EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller in Boardman March 20.
Morrow County residents meet with EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller in Boardman March 20. (Oregon Rural Action)

The federal agency has been meeting with leaders at the state health authority and with the directors of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and representatives from Kotek’s office quarterly since October to discuss the nitrate contamination. But state leaders were not invited to the Monday meeting in Boardman.

EPA was first petitioned by environmental groups to intervene in the nitrate contamination issue in 2020. 

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

The Oregon Health Authority recommends the following limits on nitrates in water: 

  • Nitrate levels between 11 mg/L and 40 mg/L are not safe to drink for infants who rely on baby formula, children younger than 3, women who are or may become pregnant, or to use for brushing teeth in children younger than 3. It is safe to drink for up to a year for those 3 and older (except pregnant women), pets and livestock. It is safe for other domestic uses, including bathing, washing dishes, laundry and garden irrigation.
  • Nitrate levels above 40 mg/L are not safe for drinking or cooking. It is safe for other domestic uses.

OHA has more information in English and Spanish.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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